Friday, January 31, 2020

North Korea and the Coronavirus

On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders to international tourism (primarily because China is the biggest source of foreign tourists) and has since begun to consider halting domestic tourism within the country as well should it be deemed necessary. The country has also started work, albeit limited, with the World Health Organization.

Pro-Pyongyang groups like the Korean Friendship Association have praised these measures and described them as proof of the regime's care for its people. Indeed, North Korea has a long history of closing its borders during other outbreaks. The reality, however, is somewhat more pragmatic and less about the fatherly love of Kim Jong Un.

Like many communist countries, North Korea built hospitals all over the country in the early years after its founding and used that to promote the morality of their ideology compared to the "exploitative" healthcare systems of other countries. What gets lost in the propaganda is the true nature of those hospitals.

North Korea allegedly has hospitals in every town and anytime a major health facility is constructed, you'll see images of the Great Leader walking around and giving "guidance" regarding every aspect of construction, operation, and even aesthetic appeal. In recent years there has been a new eye care facility, a maternity hospital, and a new general hospital constructed in Pyongyang. Even a large medical device factory near Huichon was completely reconstructed to improve their products. 

At the same time, the country has long been struggling to contain highly infectious tuberculosis outbreaks. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2018 the DPRK had 131,000 new cases of TB, in a country with a population of 25 million. Some 20,000 died (increasing each year since 2016). The country's treatment coverage rate is 69%, compared to China's treatment coverage rate of 92% and Russia's 99%. The United States with its 315 million people recorded only 9,025 cases.

While TB is indeed very contagious, its early-stage treatment is relatively straightforward and there are several outside organizations trying to help, including the Eugene Bell Foundation which focuses on the more difficult and expensive treatment of drug-resistant TB (which makes up ~4% of TB cases in the country). Yet, the death rate keeps climbing. The driving force behind North Korea's inability to control the crisis is undernourishment compounded by an inadequate medical sector. 

Undernourishment has been an ongoing problem for the country since the early 1990s. Despite the end of a nationwide famine in 1998, in some provinces as many as 32% of children under 5 years suffer from stunted growth as a result of nutritional deficiencies. This multi-generational problem even led to the North Korean military being forced to lower height and weight requirements to reflect this reality in order to meet recruitment demands.

Besides stunted growth, lack of adequate food can greatly increase one's risk of illness. Something like the annual flu becomes a much harder fight and fatality rates for at-risk populations (the very young, old, and those with other illnesses) skyrocket. This fact is also mirrored in the fatality rates of other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. The average death rate for SARS was 11% but jumped to nearly 50% for those over the age of 65.

Such disparities in fatality rates apply to all diseases and can be seen in all countries, but the additional stress of not having enough food or bodily energy reserves magnifies the risk of both getting infected and of dying.

This brings me back to the hospitals of North Korea. 

The state of North Korea's healthcare infrastructure is among the least capable and prepared in the world. Local "hospitals" would hardly be recognizable to many westerners and are little more than clinics where you're just as likely to find odd assortments of herbs as you are to find medicine. This reliance on traditional therapies in a modern, "scientific" socialist state is because even basic medical supplies are in short supply or nonexistent in rural areas. 

Unfortunately, international actions against the North Korean government have only worsened the health crisis. After a new round of sanctions, the country's only WHO-certified pharmaceutical manufacturer closed down in 2017. 

This shortage of fundamental medicines like antibiotics and pain relievers only serves to exacerbate outbreaks of disease and lowers recovery outcomes.

The only moderately well-provisioned hospitals in the country are in provincial capitals and the national capital of Pyongyang. However, these services are not free. Regardless of the legal guarantee to free healthcare, patients have to pay for everything from the needle used in an IV to providing their own meals if hospitalized. This is out of reach for the average citizen. Making things worse is the rationing of medications and equipment. The very best is held back for use only by the county's tiny elite and to be used by foreigners (who also have to pay). 

In view of North Korea's inability to provide adequate care to their own citizens without international support, let alone during an outbreak of a new virus, the decision to halt foreign tourism becomes about the fear of national survival. However, nations require more than just people to survive. The other thing to consider when trying to understand the actions taken by Pyongyang, is the fact that only tourism was stopped. Not trade.

Each year tens of thousands of Chinese tourists visit the country. But each year countless more thousands of North Korean citizens come in contact with further thousands of Chinese traders and businessmen. While the risk of an outbreak could threaten the North Korean state, ending trade with China would end the state. Thus, Pyongyang took a calculated risk. Lower the chances of the virus spreading by ending tourism but allow the risks stemming from trade because the country would quickly come to a halt without Chinese goods and the foreign currency generated through trade.

All of this comes not long after North Korea announced it would seek to create a medical tourism sector. This announcement came last year and was intended to begin this year. In a country where antibiotics are largely absent, aspirin is held dear, and where rumors of surgeries being performed without anesthesia routinely pop up, the regime thought it was best to use their medical resources to give outsiders new dental work and eye lifts.

The desire to become a medical tourism destination is rooted in the desire of the regime to make the money it needs to survive. Likewise, allowing person-to-person trade across borders is about maintaining the system. The risk of spreading infections is a secondary consideration. The real motivation is regime survival.

The state can survive a short-term hold on tourism, it can also survive having a few people receive amputations when a $0.05/dose antibiotic could have saved a limb or having a few people get sick from a virus which is much less deadly than SARS. The state can't survive, however, without the cash needed to fund its military or to buy the loyalty of elite families, and Pyongyang is still busy ensuring those activities continue with as little disturbance as possible.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 1/30/2020

Friday, January 17, 2020

Work on Major Hovercraft Base Advances

Image of 2016 landing exercises using hovercraft. | Photo: Rodong Sinmun
I recently wrote about an ongoing trend under Kim Jong Un to vastly overhaul every branch of the country's military, and this, of course, includes the construction of new naval bases and the redeployment of equipment.

High-speed hovercraft play a key role in North Korea's special operations forces (SOF). Beginning in the 1980s, the Korean People's Navy (KPN) started slowly improving its capabilities to quickly attack or infiltrate South Korean targets and by the mid-1990s their hovercraft inventory reached ~140 craft (a number which has largely remained stable over the years). While the KPN’s inventory may have remained somewhat stable, a number of new naval bases and related facilities have been under construction (or expansion) since Kim Jong Un came to power. One such base is near the small village of Yonbong-ni (37.9071°, 125.2242°).

Starting around March 2014 constructed began on this new hovercraft base. The Yonbong-ni facility compliments two others that were completed ca. 2012-2013. However, Yonbong-ni (once completed) will be much larger than the other two and, at 22 miles from the Northern Limit Line, will also be the most forward-deployed hovercraft base and one of the most forward-deployed naval bases North Korea has. (There is a small naval facility on Sunwi Island which lies 11 km from the NLL.)

The first indication of the base's construction was the placement of a small earthen dam across an inlet to moderate the flow of water into the bay from the mainland. I'd like to note that while the base's location may seem fairly remote, from the dam, it is less than 2 km away from a long-standing patrol boat station to the west.

By October 2015, commercial satellite imagery showed an apparent administrative area under construction as well as the excavation of seven hovercraft storage bays into the side of a hill (in three groupings of two and an individual one, located immediately east and south of the dam).

Part of the national coastal barrier was also in the process of being demolished which would otherwise have blocked access to the sea.

October 4, 2015 image showing the initial excavation of the hovercraft housing bays and the location of the old barrier.

Fast forward to April 2018, and a total of 54 individual housing bays were in various stages of construction, foundations for additional support facilities had been laid, and a seawall and small pier were also constructed. Several bays also had concrete walls built and their entrance structures completed. The entrance structures also allow for on-site maintenance instead of needing to move the hovercraft around various other parts of this rather expansive base.

By April 2018 construction had begun on three large groupings of housing bays as well as support facilities across the base.

At the same time, approximately 560 meters of sea wall had been put in place as well as a pier.

By October 2018, additional foundation work at various sites within the base had been carried out, as well as some further construction of other buildings.

However, the most recent Google Earth imagery (Nov. 6, 2019) shows a mixed picture.

Two bays have been completed with roof framing added to another set of two bays. Four additional bays have had their side walls constructed as well, and the temporary worker's quarters still exists.
At the same time, none of the administration or support buildings have been completed and some of the bays still haven't been fully excavated. In fact, some sites appear to be neglected and overgrown.

In this image, the original three sets of two bays are nearing completion. The left-most bay is finished and covered in dirt, the middle bay has framing installed for the roof, and the far-right bay doesn't have framing but does have its side walls and entrance structure completed. These three sets are the only ones with their entrance & maintenance structures in place.

In this image you can see the partial construction of three sets of two bays and the incomplete excavations of four bays on the far left. 

Despite construction elsewhere, these two sets of four storage bays seem to have been neglected and are overgrown with grass and shrubs.

The partial neglect of certain areas of the base appears to extend to the largest group of housing bays as well.

In this image, room for up to 18 individual hovercraft shelters has been partially excavated but none have been completed. Four barracks/support buildings were halfway built by mid-to-late 2018 but no further work has been carried out on them in the year or so since. However, a small area of newer work (new since Oct. 2018) can be seen to the left of the barracks.

Additionally, the temporary housing and warehouses used for construction still exists regardless of the construction slowdown.

Construction has certainly advanced beyond where it was in 2018 but the KPN may have decided to scale-back its initial scope. Another possible explanation for the apparent neglect of some parts of the base is that work began in 2019 on a kilometer-long tidal dam (which may eventually house a hydroelectric station) and personnel may have been redirected to that site to help finish it quickly, as military personnel are often used as general labor. This new dam is located roughly 0.8 km to the north of the northernmost sector of the base.

While the base isn't yet fully finished, the ongoing work at Yonbong-ni and work at military bases around the country demonstrates Pyongyang's continued dedication to their asymmetrical capabilities and their desire to have the capacity to inflict rapid and painful attacks against South Korea, as well as being able to defend their own territorial claims.

According to Joseph Bermudez, who wrote in detail about the initial construction phases of Yonbong-ni and the other hovercraft bases in 2018, the layout of the base "provide[s] significantly better protection from blast and fragmentation damage than any of the existing sheds or shelters found at other hovercraft bases."
Additionally, it offers "the advantage of being able to more easily land an assault force from the south and east without having to pass the heavily defended north side of [Baegnyeong-do]. More significantly, hovercraft from the Yŏnbong-ni base can quickly reach the ROK islands of Daecheong-do (Taech’ŏng-do), Socheong-do (Soch’ŏng-do) and Yeonpyeong-do (Yŏnp’yŏng-do) in approximately 30, 40 and 70 minutes, respectively; and the port city of Incheon can be reached in 90 minutes."

Additional Reading:
For more information on North Korea's hovercraft bases and special operations forces, check out Beyond Parallel's four part series (by Joseph Bermudez): Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 1/16/2020

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Current State of North Korea’s Satellite and Missile Facilities

Rocket engine test at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station |Photo: Rodong Sinmun, April 9, 2016

Over the decades, North Korea has decentralized its satellite and missile launching facilities across its territory. One obvious benefit to this is security but it is done at the cost of efficiency. The more facilities one has, the more resources are necessary to maintain and upgrade them. It may even become necessary to neglect or demolish a site in favor of improving more important ones. Pyongyang seems to have learned this lesson and placed some sites in caretaker status, demolished others, and concentrated resources to support their core infrastructure.

In this article, I will examine the current state of the country’s launch and testing facilities and detail a few important changes that have happened under Kim Jong Un, who has overseen a greater number of missile tests than his predecessors combined.

While North Korea has a history of launching missiles from a range of locations (factories, airfields, and even along highways), the country does have a robust set of dedicated launching and testing facilities.
Currently, the country has two satellite launch sites, three rocket engine test facilities, a general launch facility, and two former sites that have been decommissioned in recent years. Within Pyongyang, two known tracking and control centers also exist.

Satellite Launch Sites

While all countries have the right to peaceful space exploration, the development of rocket engines to carry satellites or astronauts necessitates the development of ballistic technology. Indeed, this has been a concern of other nations regarding the development of private space exploration. North Korea’s official protests that their space program is solely peaceful have never been taken seriously by the West and even their own propaganda has occasionally betrayed the rouse. Most recently, the purpose of the December 2019 engine tests at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station have been described by state media as “bolstering up the reliable strategic nuclear deterrent of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

Image showing the rebuilt vertical engine test stand |Photo: Google Earth

Located on the western seaboard, initial construction activity at Sohae (also known as Tongch'ang) was first noticed in the early 1990s and was largely completed by 2011. The first test occurred on April 13, 2012, with the failed launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 earth observation satellite.
Improvements to the site continued to be made over the years including new administrative and observation facilities, an upgraded rail station, and even the establishment of an outer perimeter fence that encompasses the original complex and its inner perimeter. In terms of recent activity, there are three primary examples.

The first occurred in 2018. As a result of the first US-DPRK summit that was held in Singapore, North Korea began dismantling key structures. However, rapprochement didn’t last long and in March 2019 the second change happened, the launch pad structures began to be rebuilt. The third change came with the end of 2019 and underlined the continued importance of Sohae, as two rocket engine tests were carried out.

The county’s second satellite launch station, on the other hand, has largely remained in caretaker status since 2013.

Tonghae Satellite Launch Station (also known as Musudan-ri) is in North Hamgyong Province along the east coast. Considerably smaller, Tonghae’s construction started in the 1980s and was originally used in the development of early generation Scud missiles. In 1998, North Korea claimed to have launched a Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 satellite from Tonghae, however, no orbital object was ever located or tracked by outside observers.

Another failed satellite launch attempt happened in 2009. In 2012, one of the last major additions to the site was constructed. The site, which has yet to be positively identified, is either a test facility or possible missile silo. However, despite initial progress, it was never completed. The most recent Google Earth imagery shows that it may actually be in the process of demolition.
Much of the trench covering has been removed and the control building has been torn down.

In May 2018, the trench covering was visible, and the control building was still standing |Photo: Google Earth

By November 2019, the covering had been partially removed and the control building demolished |Photo: Google Earth

Tonghae’s launch pad appears to be abandoned and is overgrown, while activity at the engine test stand and assembly building remains minimal. In fact, the grounds of the assembly building have been used for crop harvesting activities.

The original launch control building, tracking station, and the “new” control building (construction finished ca. 2015) have all seen little activity and signs of minor disrepair are visible. The Horizontal Processing Building has never been completed, despite construction starting in 2012.
Tonghae’s situation may be the result of the regime’s focus on launching satellites at Sohae with its superior facilities, testing missiles on mobile platforms, and keeping engine test stands near other required infrastructure, whereas Tonghae sits miles away from manufacturing and fuel production facilities. Tonghae’s future use seems rather bleak.

Rocket Engine Test Facilities

Beyond the engine testing facilities within both satellite stations are three additional test sites: at the Tae-sung missile factory (Pyongyang), the Magunpo solid-fuel engine test site (near Hamhung), and the Sinpo engine test site.

The Tae-sung rocket engine test stand as seen after a 2016 modernization program |Photo: Google Earth

The vertical test stand at Tae-sung (also called Chamjin) is located within the Tae-sung Missile Factory complex in Chollima, Pyongyang. Though the fairly rudimentary site can test engines for Scud and Nodong missiles, it underwent a period of general inactivity from 2006 to 2016. In 2016 the facilities were modernized, and a nose cone test was carried out. This suggests that testing larger engines may no longer be feasible (or necessary as other purpose-built sites exist) but that the site can still play a role in developing other aspects of ballistic missile technology.

Magunpo engine testing facility |Photo: Google Earth

Magunpo is one of North Korea’s newest testing sites (along with Sinpo). Vertical and horizontal test stands were constructed between 2013 and 2014. It also lies a mere 3 km from the No. 17 Explosives Factory in Hungnam where solid rocket propellant is produced. Since its construction, multiple tests have been carried out (as well as the launching of several missiles from the nearby Yongpo airfield to the southwest). Magunpo remains an important cog in North Korea’s missile program as it is currently the largest such site in the country.

Sinpo engine test stand |Photo: Google Earth

Within the city of Sinpo and including the nearby Mayang Island lies a key submarine base and is where most of the development of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) occurs. Initial work on the land-based test stand began in 2012 and supports “both the development of the Pukguksong-1 (KN-11) SLBM and SINPO-class SSBA’s missile launch systems,” according to Joseph Bermudez. There have been several “ejection tests” at the site as well as tests carried out on sea-based, submersible barges. The most recent barge-based test was of the Pukguksong-3 (KN-28) which was conducted on October 2, 2019.

Work at the submarine base has been ongoing and, according to 38 North, the use of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) "revealed the presence of the North Korean SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) and its submersible test stand barge positioned beneath a recently constructed, dockside awning designed to conceal and environmentally protect these vessels.” 
This is strong evidence that the development of SLBMs is a primary focus of the regime.

Hodo Launch Site

The Hodo missile launch site and artillery testing grounds |Photo: Google Earth

The Hodo Launch Site is a dedicated missile launch facility that lies on the Hodo Peninsula, north of Wonsan. The area has been used for artillery training since the 1960s but within this decade the training area has been increasingly used for long-range artillery and ballistic missile testing. Concrete launch pads, a dock, and other support buildings were constructed beginning in 2014.

Two launch pads were constructed at the relatively close-by Wonsan-Kalma International Airport in 2016 and several tests were carried out there, however, the subsequent construction of resorts and hotels along the same beach meant that those launch sites were demolished. Since then, activity at Hodo has greatly increased with several tests happening in 2019 including a test on May 4, 2019 and two short-range missile tests occurring in July.

Decommissioned Launch Sites

The first decommissioned launch site in recent history was the aforementioned site at Wonsan. Those two pads were the location of several high-profile launches including a Hwasong-10 launch which Kim Jong Un himself oversaw. The extremely basic facility was demolished for expediency as Wonsan was about to undergo an enormous construction project to build beach resorts. The upgraded facilities at nearby Hodo also meant that Wonsan became redundant.

A comparison image showing the Iha-ri driver’s facility with the test stand visible in 2017 and in 2019 after its demolition |Photo: Google Earth

Perhaps the most significant change happened at the Iha-ri military driver training base in North Pyongan Province. Between 2016 and 2017 a vertical engine test stand was constructed at the base. It was only used once, as a canister-launched ballistic missile ejection test for the Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) before being demolished in mid-2018 as part of Kim Jong Un’s April 2018 announcement that they would suspend future ballistic missile tests. The base has since been returned to its original purpose.

Control Centers

Pyongyang is host to the country’s central missile and satellite control centers.

The General Rocket Control Center is located within the Second Academy of Natural Sciences (also known as the Academy of Defense Science or the Sanum-dong missile factory) in northern Pyongyang. It is responsible for tracking and other activities related to the testing of ballistic missiles and was constructed sometime between 2001 and 2005. The facility has remained largely unchanged except for a new hexagonal building that was constructed in 2016. The Academy lies adjacent to the Kim Jong Un National Defense University which also plays a role in the development of missile technology.

The General Satellite Control Center is the control center of the National Aerospace Development Administration. The modern-looking complex was constructed near central Pyongyang along the Pothong River between 2014-2015. It handles satellite launches and tracking. An expansion of the facility began in 2017 with multiple large buildings being added to the complex. Construction at the site has carried on well into 2019. The exact purpose of these new buildings is unknown, but it is possible that they may be research facilities and will also provide museum space.


While some facilities may have been shuttered or demolished, the core of North Korea’s testing infrastructure and their ability to research and to construct missiles and launch vehicles remain undiminished. Pyongyang’s insistence that the recent Sohae tests were part of their nuclear deterrence, and their ongoing work toward developing SLBMs at their Sinpo facilities, clearly demonstrate the regime’s intentions. The question becomes, will the international community listen to what North Korea is broadcasting with the current state of their testing facilities?

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Growth in Military Capacities Codified by Party Meetings

During the last ten days of 2019, North Korea held two major meetings, both chaired by Kim Jong Un.

The official reports on the substance of the meetings have been short on detail, but they have mentioned a few key points that can give us an understanding of what’s going on. During the “enlarged” Seventh Central Military Commission meeting, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the, “meeting would decide on important organizational and political measures and military steps to bolster up the overall armed forces of the country…” and “discussed were important issues for decisive improvement of the overall national defence and core matters for the sustained and accelerated development of military capability for self-defence.

Stressing the point further, the report went on to say that at the meeting they rectified “irrational structure and defects in machinery and some shortcomings in other military and political activities…” This means streamlining the military bureaucracy and realigning military and related facilities to be more effective toward accomplishing national defense goals.

During the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, the KCNA reported that the agenda emphasized “the need to take positive and offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country as required by the present situation, [Kim Jong Un] indicated the duties of the fields of foreign affairs, munitions industry and armed forces of the DPRK.

While these statements are relatively broadly worded, they echo what has come out of previous meetings. The result of those meetings, policy changes, and decisions by Kim Jong Un has repeatedly resulted in the ongoing development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and upgraded capabilities of their conventional military forces.

North Korea has generally taken a cautionary approach. When diplomacy seems to be working, they’re willing to halt major weapons testing. And when things start going sour, they resume provocations. But throughout it all, they have not altered any of their core military doctrine or cut themselves off from necessary infrastructure or strategic development.

The Center for Strategic International Studies, 38 North, myself, and many others have spent a lot of time monitoring not just North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic forces but also their conventional military capabilities, and one thing has been made very clear: under Kim Jong Un, major upgrades to all branches of their military have been underway. Regardless of any specifics, these two meetings have underscored this ongoing trend of modernization and the realignment of military structures.

This trend can be seen in the fact that Kim Jong Un has tested more missiles than his predecessors combined, tested the country’s largest nuclear device to-date, and, as mentioned, is currently embarking on the reorganization of military bases and expanding their training capacities.
This reorganization and the overhauling of capabilities is a keystone of what the Party has now laid out and it can be seen in the following examples.

Regarding their nuclear program, there has been a large amount of construction work in recent years at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, and that work is ongoing. The Pyongsan uranium mine and milling plant continues production and seems to have taken on the role as the regime’s primary uranium milling plant as the smaller site at Pakchon has been placed in caretaker status and is somewhat now redundant. Focusing on Pyongsan saves resources and allows for needed improvements at Pyongsan, such as those seen from 2013-2015.

The Tonghae Satellite Launch Station has been placed in caretaker status as well, as additional resources have been poured into the more capable Sohae Satellite Launch Station. Keeping some sites in caretaker status also gives the regime the latitude to make token concessions (such as the demolition of a single test stand) without fundamentally degrading their capacity for testing, while still being frugal by not keeping both sites at full operational status.

In keeping with the theme of centralization, Pyongyang’s General Satellite Control Center is in the process of expansion, and ongoing work at the National Defense University has been identified as its role in both ballistic research and its place within the burgeoning personality cult of Kim Jong Un grows.

The country’s missile testing facilities have likewise been streamlined. The short-lived Kalma test site was decommissioned in favor of the expanding capabilities at the nearby Hodo Launch Area. And, a test stand was erected at the Sinpo Submarine Base to enable the further development of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).

Their munitions industry has also been expanding, as the Central Committee meeting has now publicly emphasized. A very recent example of this is the expansion of the March 16 Factory in Pyongsong which produces military equipment needed for their missile program. Ongoing work can also be seen at a massive underground facility and related factories in Hamhung.

Changes haven’t been limited to industrial centers or test sites. Even the ballistic missile bases themselves have been enlarged with new housing and additional support facilities. The northern base at Yeongjeo-ri has also had a large annex constructed nearby (construction was completed under Kim Jong Un).

In terms of naval power, a major, multiyear reconstruction was carried out at the facilities around Muchon, and Changrin Island (on the west coast) has had a naval base built on it. The island recently made headlines for artillery tests carried out from it. Analyst Joseph Bermudez has given a detailed report about a large hovercraft base in Yonbong-ni under construction. Such bases can be used by strategic and special operations forces to quickly infiltrate and destroy South Korean targets.

Then there’s the aforementioned submarine base at Sinpo. Not only has a missile test stand been erected but the manufacturing abilities at the base have been improved and other construction activity can be seen. The first test of the SLBM Pukkuksong-3 was carried out in October of 2019, and there is growing evidence that North Korea is building a new type of submarine at Sinpo.

As I noted in early December, the regime has taken several steps to make the most of its aging air force. Under Kim Jong Un, the capacity to train paratroopers has been nearly doubled and their airfield infrastructure has likewise been improved.

One of the goals of the Central Committee’s meeting was also to discuss ways to improve agriculture and that, too, connects with the military changes. Unessential airports have been closed and one, Kyongsong-Chuul, was recently decommissioned to allow for the construction of a massive agricultural center. This drive to increase food production in conjunction with military improvements can likewise be seen through changes at KPA Farm No. 1116. This key agricultural site in Pyongyang underwent a modernization program in 2019 and was visited by Kim Jong Un in October.

Of North Korea’s Army, the area of training has been a major focus. An important military operations on urban terrain (MOUT) base near Kangdong added 11 km of new paths in 2019 for training soldiers on how to operate various equipment. Similarly, KPA bases near Yongbyon, Pukchin, Haeju, Changdo, and Sepo have all undergone notable expansions since Kim Jong Un came to power. 
Completely new bases have also been constructed throughout the country.

This centralization effort in training allows for key bases to be overhauled and to serve as primary training facilities, instead of new recruits being sent to dozens of smaller sites around the country, each with significantly more limited resources. It also opens up space to house new soldiers, enable larger numbers to be moved around the country for construction or harvesting activities, and will give the regime the space needed to improve ongoing training of their vast paramilitary and reserve forces.

A small but important side benefit of this comes from better land-use policies. Efficiently arranged military housing and more reasonably designed training courses allows for more hectares of land to be used in farming instead of being wasted.

North Korea is rarely a mystery to those who pay attention. They broadcast their intentions in both official pronouncements from media and Party newspapers, and in their activities (which can be observed from satellites). As broadly worded as the official statements may seem regarding the two meetings, when you see the trend that has already been happening, those reports clearly reveal the state’s objectives to continue to improve their national defense abilities across the board as well as their agricultural and economic sectors.

The dual nature of North Korea’s domestic-military system has built a unique national structure that has enabled the country to survive for seven decades. The use of the military as “builder-soldiers” to construct everything from a modern skyline in Pyongyang to new ski resorts and to the reconstruction of Samjiyon, improves the domestic economy. Improvements to the country’s general infrastructure regarding communication, fuel supplies, and illicit means of sanctions avoidance enables greater military capabilities.

From threats of “Christmas gifts” to claims of new “strategic weapon systems”, the overarching policy directions proposed by Pyongyang are now reflecting what has already been happening under Kim Jong Un and ensure the establishment of needed “offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country”. To guarantee the sovereignty and security of the country, North Korea’s wider strategic position must be secured, no matter what happens diplomatically. Kim Jong Un’s refusal to ignore the less “sexy” conventional forces while also placing an emphasis on economic matters, seems to have placed North Korea in a secure position for the foreseeable future.

Additional Reading
Major Expansion at Pyongyang Training Ground - AccessDPRK, 12/17/19
Missile Bases and Major Underground Facilities - AccessDPRK, 10/23/19

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 1/5/2020

Thursday, January 2, 2020

AccessDPRK in 2019

This past year has been a banner year for both the project itself and its wider goal of being a fundamental resource for helping to shed light on North Korea.

The #AccessDPRK blog will celebrate its seventh anniversary in February 2020 and currently contains 97 articles which, if printed out, would equal over 570 pages worth of material.

For 2019, I was able to write 28 articles for the project which is the most in its history. Additionally, 70 images were analyzed for those articles. A further 196 images were shared and discussed on Twitter.

Some more social media stats include: over 384,000 Twitter impressions for tweets relating to North Korea and the project (that's a 92% jump over last year), and gained over 100 new followers. I also created a Facebook page that offers a variety of material that won't always be found on Twitter.

Last year's most popular tweet was about ongoing work at the massive underground complex in Hamhung. traffic was also 32% higher than last year, in part because of the largest news story to come from the project thus far.
In August I wrote about an ongoing industrial leak from the Pyongsan uranium milling plant that was pouring into a river. My report was picked up by RFA before quickly spreading around the world. For a time, it was the biggest news story in South Korea. Concerns over the leak (as the river eventually flows into the Han River) spurred the South Korean government to test for possible radioactive contamination. Thankfully, no dangerous levels were detected. However, 400,000 North Koreans still use the water for drinking and farming, and the risks of heavy metal contamination is far greater for them.

I finally set up a Patreon account so that people can directly support the project. With multiple support levels ($3, $5, $15, and $20 a month), it offers ways for people of any economic means to help. I have worked to come up with exclusive rewards and I'm currently in the process of creating even more.

Working on AccessDPRK isn't free. It costs money to have websites and domain registration, and books and other research materials come at a price. Then there's the matter of fairness. I have literally put thousands of hours into creating the maps, analyzing images, and writing articles, all because I believe in the mission of sharing information about North Korea. But I can't keep doing it alone or at the cost of working on other things in my life.
So if you see value in the last seven years of the project and look forward to more in the future, please do think about helping out. The more support I get, the more I can do. 2019 was certainly proof of that.

Speaking of doing more. Last year I added well over a thousand new places to what will become the final Google Earth-based map: Phase III. I also set a goal of completing it by 2021 and expect it to contain around 60,000 places of interest. There's nearly 100 individual categories of places that I am mapping divided into three broad sections: monuments, military, and domestic/economic. The end result will also be organized somewhat differently than 2017's Phase II, to improve its ease of use.

Finding examples of people using the project to help in their own research is always great. For the second year in a row RAND Corporation used parts of Phase II to assist in creating their report "Four Problems on the Korean Peninsula". Additionally, I was able to help a number of university students and researchers with their respective projects.

AccessDPRK also received a little unexpected publicity in December with the publication of "The Self-Appointed Spies Who Use Google Earth to Sniff Out Nukes" by Amy Zegart for The Atlantic. In the piece, Zegart looked at the open-source community and its efforts to serve as watchdogs against nuclear proliferation. She used several examples of non-government individuals and groups who monitor North Korea, Iran, and China, and AccessDPRK was among them.

I have also been able to occasionally contribute articles to (Pro). These articles draw upon what has been learned from the most recent North Korea research including things exposed by this project. I'm really proud of this.

North Korea's recent WPK Central Committee's Fifth Plenary Meeting strongly indicates that 2020 is going to be a rather interesting and provocative year, and I am looking forward to taking on the challenge with your support.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 1/1/2020

Friday, December 27, 2019

Nuclear Fallout Part II: the health consequences of Pyongyang's nuclear program

Pollution and health risks exists at every point along the nuclear weapons’ development chain, from the initial mining and milling operations to the enrichment process, and finally from testing nuclear devices. In this two-part article I will examine each of those areas and the health risks associated with them.

In this second part, I finish discussing the health consequences of North Korea’s nuclear program by examining issues related to their underground testing. (Part I can be read here.)


After producing the needed nuclear fuel and solving the other matters associated with creating a nuclear device, the next step is testing.

After decades of work the regime was able to test its first nuclear device in 2006. The underground test was carried out within Mount Mantap at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. However, there is no such thing as a safe nuclear test, even when they’re underground. The original tunnel for the 2006 test was closed up shortly after the test as a result of radiation releases according to 38 North. Since 2006, five additional tests have been carried out in different tunnels. Further reporting indicates that another delayed leak was also detected as a result of post-tunneling activities in 2013.

Even under the best circumstances, underground nuclear testing still can release some radionuclides into the atmosphere. Less than optimal testing can pose a much greater radiation risk to those downwind of the test site. Initial radiation releases from a containment failure occur through “venting” but releases can continue for longer through “seeps”, where radiation finds its way out of the underground site through small fissures and openings in the overlying rock. Radioisotopes of xenon (such as 133Xe and 135Xe) are almost impossible to contain and can travel across the globe, as Canadian detectors picked them up after the very low-yield 2006 test.

Punggye-ri is in a mountainous area with little population but the main tunnel entrances are less than 2 miles away from the boundary of the Hwasong Concentration Camp. Due to the extreme human rights violations facing prisoners, we can’t hear their stories or send professionals over to determine how much radiation they have been exposed to. Residents within the larger area, however, have been able get their experiences to the broader world.

In 2017, South Korea reported that four defectors who lived in the area around Punggye-ri showed signs of radiation exposure. Defector Lee Jeong Hwa, who lived in Kilju County, said, "So many people died we began calling it 'ghost disease’…We thought we were dying because we were poor and we ate badly. Now we know it was the radiation." Unfortunately, the inability to do detailed testing on people still living in the area and gather more definitive evidence prevents us from knowing the full effects of the testing.

Negative health impacts from underground nuclear testing is easily supported by looking at the results of underground testing in the United States. According to the US National Cancer Institute, some 2,800 annual cases of thyroid cancer within the US can be attributed to the “underground era” of 1962-1992, when the United States (and the Soviet Union) was limited to testing nuclear devices underground by treaty. While North Korea has only had a limited number of tests, those tests have increased radiation levels for the region and caused an unknown level of damage to the population. Of particular concern are the 20,000 Hwasong prisoners, who are also suspected of being used as slave labor to help dig the tunnels used at Punggye-ri.

The stability of portions of Mount Mantap is also of concern after six tests, and surface changes as a result of ground shifting have been studied in detail. The first two (of four) tunnels are likely to be unusable for any future testing. Worries over accidental radiation releases from collapsing tunnels spurred China to install additional radiation detectors along their border with North Korea in 2017 and at a newly constructed border crossing in 2019.
The other two tunnels exist to the west and south and have not been used to-date. Their entrances were demolished in May 2018; however, questions remain about the irreversibility of those closures.

Occasional rumors of a possible future above-ground test (for which there are very few potential testing sites) raises the stakes even more. Radiation would flood over Japan and would reverse decades of atmospheric radionuclide decline around the globe.


The known risks associated with the chemicals and processes involved in mining, milling, and enriching uranium, as well as in the production of other radioactive materials, supports the descriptions of illnesses as told by unrelated sources, each with first-hand knowledge of the locations discussed.

Despite the guarantees of the North Korean constitution and international law regarding the right to favorable working conditions and the right to pick one’s career (or to leave it), expert and defector testimonies, coupled with satellite imagery, paints a very different and dangerous story. It can be said that a major humanitarian and health crisis is brewing within North Korea as we know the substandard state of their nuclear program – not just in terms of technology but also safety.

Most of the facilities within Punggye-ri’s 17-kilometer-long compound still stand, waiting to be used again. Yongbyon continues to grow and thousands of additional scientists, laborers, and their families have been moved in under Kim Jong Un. The mines and milling plants still produce materials to be sent to enrichment facilities. And the regime keeps working on their abilities to deliver ballistic missiles to any part of the globe. It is clear that the sixty years of nuclear harm now affecting the tens of thousands of North Koreans who have worked to develop Pyongyang’s nuclear program over three generations of Kim will continue into the future, causing more harm, more sickness, and will likely require the efforts of multiple countries to finally resolve once the Kim Era is over.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

Jacob Bogle, 12/26/2019

Monday, December 23, 2019

Nuclear Fallout Part I: The health consequences of Pyongyang’s nuclear program

Pollution and health risks exists at every point along the nuclear weapons’ development chain, from the initial mining and milling operations to the enrichment process, and finally from testing nuclear devices. In this two-part series I will examine each of those areas and the health risks associated with them.

In this first part, I will give a short introduction to the history of North Korea’s nuclear program and then discuss the health risks found within the uranium mining and milling process and the production of nuclear fuel. (Read Part II here

Image source: Sakucae/2.0

North Korea can trace its nuclear program to soon after the Korean War. After the war’s total devastation, Kim Il Sung vowed that the country would never again be flattened, and he sought Soviet assistance in creating Pyongyang’s own nuclear deterrent. Marshall Stalin and future Soviet leaders weren’t too keen on Kim’s aspirations initially, but they did offer help with the development of nuclear power and signed a nuclear cooperation agreement in 1959. Never one to let an opportunity go to waste, Kim Il Sung ordered secret research into building the A-bomb.

Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear research center, was constructed in the 1960s with help from the Soviet Union. Further facilities across the country were constructed that were needed to mine the uranium, mill it, and finally, to enrich it. The country has two known milling facilities, one at at Pakchon and Pyongsan, and around dozen suspected uranium mining sites. Pakchon and Pyongsan process low-grade coal to concentrate the uranium naturally found within it (at relatively low concentrations) and then to turn it into yellowcake where the uranium concentration reaches 80%. From there it is sent to additional facilities including Yongbyon, some of which have likely not been declared by North Korea to the international community.

Mining and milling
North Korea is one of only seven countries that are not signatories to the International Labor Organization. This United Nations agency sets international labor standards, including those for nuclear research and industry. Furthermore, the country’s mining sector is notoriously dangerous and lacks modern safety precautions and necessary equipment. Injuries and respiratory diseases are common, particularly in coal mines which is where North Korea gets the bulk of its uranium. The country’s two largest uranium mines, Pyongsan and Woogi-ri (within the Undok-Rason area), hold an estimated 11.5 million tonnes of ore and employ thousands of workers.

The inhuman treatment of workers at Pyongsan, and severe negligence regarding monitoring radiation exposure and air quality was given in testimony by Dr. Shin Chang-hoon before the U.S House in 2014.

Once the ore leaves the mines, it is transported to the milling plants to be converted into yellowcake. Even though coal itself is generally considered safe to handle, every form of uranium extraction leaves behind dangerous waste.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency,
"regardless of how uranium is extracted from rock, the processes leave behind radioactive waste....The tailings remain radioactive and contain hazardous chemicals from the recovery process."

 Google Earth image showing the residue of leaked waste material at both ends of the waste transfer pipe.

The Pyongsan milling plant is a prime example of the environmental damage done within North Korea’s nuclear sector. Satellite imagery shows that the country’s primary milling facility has been spilling industrial waste into the Ryesong River for decades, and that the waste material reservoir is unlined. This can allow contaminated water to seep into groundwater supplies and also contaminate crops. Hundreds of thousands live within the area of Pyongsan and downriver of the plant.

Non-proliferation expert Dr. Jeffrey Lewis summed it up nicely in 2015 when he said, “What is definitely happening, though, is that North Korea is dumping the tailings from the plant into an unlined pond, one surrounded by farms. That’s not a hypothetical harm.  That’s actual pollution that is harming the health and well being of the local community."

At Pakchon, which began uranium milling around 1982, a former waste reservoir is now covered in cultivated land. This practice can be seen at many mining and industrial sites. If the waste isn’t properly covered, any crops grown over this material may become contaminated with heavy metals such as vanadium and chromium, as well as lead and arsenic. Those contaminates are passed up the food-chain into animals and humans.

Image showing that a former waste reservoir is now farmland and the plant’s proximity to a river.

According to defector Kim Tae-ho, who worked at Pakchon in the 1990s, when the “experimental plant” would operate, yellow smoke would fill the plant and cause “severe difficult breathing and unbearable pain.” The short-term effect of inhaling yellowcake particles is primarily kidney damage which will resolve itself unless there is recurrent exposure (such as from working at the site each day). However, the main radiological risk comes from the radioactive gas radon and its non-gaseous “daughters” like polonium-218. Improperly vented air can lead to a build up of these radioactive materials and will cause immediate tissue damage to the lungs and mucus membranes. Additionally, the use of acids in the production process raises the risk for inhalation of sulfur-containing gases (which can have a yellow tint to them) and cause irritation and eventually burns to the eyes and lungs.
Pakchon and Pyongsan are combined mine and milling facilities, but illnesses and food contamination have been reported at stand-alone mines as well, such as at the Walbisan uranium mine (near Sunchon).

Sources told Radio Free Asia that, “local residents are forced to eat radioactive food and drink radioactive water,” and “[i]n Tongam village, the miners and their families suffer from incurable diseases or various types of cancer. In particular, many people die of liver cancer.”

Enrichment and fuel production

Even within the uranium enrichment compound, almost every inch of available land has been cultivated.

The next steps along the nuclear development chain happen at Yongbyon. The complex exists as a closed-city and people are not free to enter or exit without permission. Scientists, engineers, and others may work for many years within the fenced off complex. They will marry and will raise children.

While being able to work within a prominent field brings many benefits, it also brings risks. Brief exposure to radiation is rarely dangerous. Short exposure risks are also not catastrophic when it comes to inheritable genetic damage, either, as the world learned from the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But continual exposure because you’re living in a contaminated environment increases those risks each day. This concern grows when you consider that in recent years, dozens of new buildings have been constructed with room for thousands more residents.

Scientists who were involved during the early days of Yongbyon’s operation have been reported to have suffered from wasting illnesses and hair loss.

Fast-forward to 2019, a former resident of Yongbyon told DailyNK,
"In other districts it is very difficult to find people with cleft lip but here there are many individuals with crooked mouths, those lacking eyebrows, incidents of dwarfism, and those with six fingers. There are even children who just look like bare bones."

Adults can also be affected, with the most severe cases eventually causing mental deficiencies, cancers, and wide array of other illnesses at relatively young ages.

The aforementioned Dr. Shin Chang-hoon also interviewed a defector who worked at Yongbyon. He was told that the dosimeters (which measure radiation exposure) were only checked every three months and workers were not told of the results unless they had already begun to exhibit signs of radiation sickness.

Adjacent to an area of improperly stored nuclear waste is a grove of dying trees and farmland. It is only separated from the waste by a covering of dirt.

Improper disposal of radioactive materials can pollute the soil, kill trees, and contaminate any food that is grown in the area. Releases of gases into the atmosphere will likewise blanket the region and small, aerosolized particles will eventually make their way down to the ground, bringing with them radiation or forming toxic compounds. These gases can travel for many miles and place other sites within North Korea at greater risk, not just the immediate Yongbyon complex.

Concern over Yongbyon is especially grave considering the large number of nuclear and chemical facilities in such a small area. Not just in terms of ongoing dangers that defectors have told the world about, but also in terms of a future accident, flood, or fire that could devastate the region and require international intervention to solve. 

The fact North Korea is largely cut off from the world and often must rely on outdated science, manufacturing techniques, and potentially unreliable indigenously produced parts and equipment means that the risk of accidents and errors is greater than in other nuclear countries. It is something of a small miracle that a large-scale incident hasn’t already occurred.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/22/2019